Sony originally came out with the SACD format in 1999. Unfortunately for those of us that invested in the format, mass market support never really came around, though in the audiophile community the format still thrives. Sony is still putting out SACD players for this market, and many of their previous models have not only been wonderful SACD players, but among the best Redbook CD players on the market. Sony’s current reference player is the SCD-XA5400ES, a single disc SACD player that supports both stereo and multi-channel SACD.
- Design: SACD/CD Player
- Format Support: SACD, Redbook CD
- Outputs: L/R Balanced and Unbalanced Analog Audio, Optical and Coaxial Digital Bitstream, HDMI, Headphone
- Dimensions: 4.75″ H x 16.9″ W x 16.1″ D
- Weight 22.5 Pounds
- MSRP $1,500 USA
The first thing anyone would notice about the SCD-XA5400ES is the heavy duty construction of the unit. I have a 5 disc SACD changer from Sony, but the construction of that is nothing compared to the ES model. Weighing over 22 lbs, the ES is a seriously well built machine and as soon as you open the disc tray, you’ll notice the quality of the drive mechanism. The front panel is made of aluminum, with metal all around the rest of the machine, save for the headphone level dial on the front panel, and a couple of switches on the back that are plastic. The rear panel features gold plated RCA and XLR stereo outputs, with an HDMI output for sending multichannel DSD to a compatible receiver or processor, as well as optical and coaxial digital outputs.
Internally, the ES features dual R-core power transformers, known for being more compact and running cooler than more common EL transformers, as well as having lower noise leakage that can cause interference with the audio circuitry. There are dual laser pickups, one for the SACD layer and one for the CD layer, for optimal performance with each type of medium. The digital and analog sections of the player are kept on entirely separate boards, with the digital board on top.
If you wish to use the HDMI output of the player, there is a button up front to enable or disable the HDMI jack. When the HDMI is enabled all of the analog circuity, including the headphone jack, as well as the optical and coaxial digital outputs are disabled. This helps to prevent noise leakage from the HDMI sections into the analog circuity and vice versa. Overall, the Sony player is as well built as almost any CD player I have used, and better than any $1,500 player I have used.
Setup and In Use
With a player like this, most of the interest is certainly in its’ analog performance and so that’s where I concentrated on my listening. I hooked up the ES to a Wyred4Sound STI-500 over XLR and RCA, and I also connected the digital output to the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 over coaxial to let me compare the DAC sections in the two components. When the ES first arrived at my office, I pulled it out and hooked it up to my NuForce HDP headphone amplifier and AKG K701 headphones for my initial impressions of the machine.
I had brought in a collection of CD’s to give it a spin, and I first put on the soundtrack to The Piano by Michael Nyman. One of my favorite tracks on the album is also one of the shortest, “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”. As soon as the first few notes began to play, I could tell that this player was unlike what I was used to. As his fingers struck the keys of the piano, the notes came off full of body and depth, with the weight of the impact behind them. Beyond just the notes, you could hear the sound of the recording room in there at all, with the bit of openness from the space instead of just a piano that could have been sampled from a machine. Another wonderful trait was that beyond this, I heard nothing. For lack of a better term, the background was black as the player was not introducing that little bit of noise that I hear from almost every player, but it was just a silent backdrop from which the music could spring forth. Comparisons to the track played back from my PC through the NuForce only highlighted the abilities of the Sony with it’s extra weight, detail, and sheer musicality.
Moving onto an SACD of a totally different variety, the deluxe edition of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral was to pose a totally different challenge. Instead of a simple, acoustic album, this was a dense, layered, electronically produced album that has a very nice SACD remaster. Listening to the first few tracks, I noticed extra details that I had never heard before, despite having listened to the album often over the past 15 years. Distinguishing between the different layered instruments and sounds was much easier, and the extra clarity made me listen far longer than I had planned to. My coworkers think that much of the gear that I review is crazy, or wonder if they’d even tell the difference. I pulled one of them over to give a listen to this album, and he admitted that it was like hearing the album all over again.
Moving the Sony into my home system, the enjoyment of listening continued to grow. Bob Dylan is a favorite of mine, though not my wife, and listening to the SACD of Blood on the Tracks was a wonderful experience. The distinctive sound of a finger moving over a metal guitar string came right through on “Buckets of Rain”, with his voice as clear as Bob Dylan’s voice was ever going to be, for better or worse. Female vocals from Norah Jones and Natalie Merchant sounded as smooth and natural as they ever had to me. The Sony took the hundreds of discs that I’ve bought over the past decades and brought out all of the detail that was present on them, and took away all of the noise and harshness that previous players had introduced. The better a CD was, the better it sounded coming from the Sony. I now started to realize why all the audio reviews I had been reading over the years used so much jazz and classical music, as the recording quality is usually so much better than on pop and rock records, and a good system will just let them shine.
The player that I had on hand to compare to the Sony was the Oppo BDP-83SE. I also had the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 on hand which uses a similar DAC to the Oppo, but it let me use the Sony as the digital transport which made it very easy to switch back and forth between the Sony and Wyred4Sound as a source, without needing to synchronize two players. Comparing the three sources was hard as none of them were bad, or even average. The DAC-2 and Oppo were very similar in sound, a little bit brighter than the Sony, and a slight bit louder it seemed to me as I switched across inputs. The soundstage on both of these players seemed to be a bit wider than on the Sony, but without quite as much depth to it.
The best way to describe the Sony in comparison would be as a very solid, defined sound; when that note was struck on the piano, you heard that note and nothing else. On the other players, the note was a little bit lighter, without quite as much force, but a little brighter and more relaxed. In the end, I did wind up preferring the sound of the Sony in comparison, though I listened to many pieces over and over again in making my choice, as it certainly wasn’t a run away. The other sources have additional benefits that the Sony lacks (digital or USB inputs, Blu-ray and DVD-Audio playback), but for straight CD and SACD playback, the Sony was the best of the bunch in my listening.
Though I focused on the stereo outputs for most of this review, I did use the HDMI output to see how it worked. The processor that I tested it with did not support DSD over HDMI so it had to convert the SACD to PCM first. The Sony sent this as 24/176.4 PCM which is very nice as many players, including the Oppo BDP-83, only send it as 24/88.2 when they need to send it as PCM. While many people would prefer to keep the signal as DSD through the entire signal chain there are virtually no processors that can do any sort of room correction, bass management, or almost any adjustments on a DSD signal without first converting it to PCM. As I like to use room correction on my multichannel audio, though not on stereo, this conversion to PCM was fine with me. Albums that I played back in surround sounded wonderful, but as the sound quality was mostly determined by the DACs inside of my processor, any comments on sound quality would not apply to a system with a different processor.
The one negative experience I had with the 5400ES was when I went to listen to the new album from The National, High Violet. This has been one of my favorite albums of the year, and really made me regret not discovering the band earlier. However, when I went and listened to the album on the Sony, I only lasted a couple of tracks before I turned it off. Here I discovered that at times the Sony could be too revealing of the recording, and the fact that the album was overproduced and a victim of the loudness wars with little dynamic range and just a really harsh sound made it not an enjoyable listen. Of course, to criticize the Sony for making a bad mastering job sound bad isn’t right, but it let me know just how revealing it could be. Below you can see a waveform of Track 1 from High Violet, followed by a waveform from Track 1 from 10,000 Maniacs Blind Man’s Zoo. You can see the lack of dynamic range on High Violet, and the Sony really managed to show off how poor that actually sounds.
On The Bench (JEJ)
First, the CD tests. Distortion measurements were made within an 80 kHz bandwidth. The left channel is represented by yellow lines, and the right channel by red lines.
At 1 kHz THD+N was very low, at 0.009%.
Using 19 kHz and 20 kHz sine waves, the B-A peak at 1 kHz was 100 dB below the fundamentals, which is excellent.
IMD was also very low, at 0.005%.
The measured frequency response for Redbook CD was 20 Hz – 20 khz, – 0.1 dB.
Following are the SACD tests.
At 1 kHz, THD+N was 0.02% (22 kHz bandwidth).
The B-A peak at 1 kHz, using 19 kHz and 20 kHz sine waves, was 100 dB below the fundamentals, just as it was with Redbook CD.
IMD for SACD was 0.14%.
SACD frequency response was 20 Hz – 36 kHz, – 1 dB.
The jitter spectrum is shown below. When playing an 11 kHz sine wave, jitter was mostly at about 10 pico-seconds. However, down in the audible band, jitter rose to between 200 and 500 pico-seconds.
Combined with my wife, we have well over 400 CD’s in our collection, and I know there are people out there with far more than that. The Sony XA5400ES brought new life to almost all of those CDs and made me go back and listen to many of them all over again. With poorly mastered recordings, it might be ruthlessly detailed and show all of the flaws, but almost everything I owned sounded much better on this player. It is built like a tank, and never had a single issue with any CD or SACD that I attempted to play, even ones that can skip on other players.
When this arrived at my office I had a co-worker ask if they still even made CD players anymore, as you have a DVD or Blu-ray player that can play them back already. That might be the case, but I’ve yet to find a DVD or Blu-ray player that can play them back this well and provide this much enjoyment from all of my existing equipment. I’m sure some people will wonder about the cost, but for just a couple of dollars per recording to make everything in my collection sound so much better, I find the Sony to be a true bargain for what it brings to the table. The only complaint is that they’re making me send the review unit back, but I imagine I’ll be adding it to my system sooner than later, and that’s the best complement I can give.